Lost in the Pale Blue Light…

re-posting this tonight in honor of the awesome premiere of COSMOS. Please ignore its poor quality, for it is a very, very, VERY old piece of writing. Cheers.

We cast this message into the cosmos. It is likely to survive a billion years into our future, when our civilization is profoundly altered and the surface of the Earth may be vastly changed. Of the 200 billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy, some–perhaps many–may have inhabited planets and spacefaring civilizations. If one such civilization intercepts Voyager and can understand these recorded contents, here is our message:

This is a present from a small distant world, a token of our sounds, our science, our images, our music, our thoughts, and our feelings. We are attempting to survive our time so we may live into yours. We hope someday, having solved the problems we face, to join a community of galactic civilizations. This record represents our hope and our determination, and our good will in a vast and awesome universe.

President Jimmy Carter, 1977

The other night I had a dream, and the best way to describe that dream would be to take my entire life and imagine every last second of it was filmed, tiny little moment by tiny little moment, and after filming was completed someone decided to completely mix the order of events around. As the moments played out in random order and became more frantic and urgent, fast-forwarding as if searching for some clearer, happier snapshots, the wheels begin to come off of the grand narrative and events start bleeding in to each other, memories mixing haphazardly together in a chaotic, hypnotic dance, like different shades of paint being thrown in to the same bucket and shaken violently to create something profound and unintended. It was as if someone had let a schizophrenic loose in the editing room in my brain and, as with all people when they’re witnessing some weird dream playing out inside their skull, I felt like I was both involved and yet also completely alienated from the events unfolding – a weird cross between a reluctant participant and a shocked observer. After what felt like ages, just sitting there watching this post-modern interpretation of my life, I woke up suddenly and found myself drenched in sweat, my heart feeling both heavy and light, a feather made of iron crashing back down to the Earth. I felt like my heart was beating fast, too fast for me to catch up to it, but when I put my hand on my chest it was making its normal war-drum beat – thump-thump, thump-thump – and I tried to fall back asleep but sleep wouldn’t come.

Outside were the sounds of my city…a car drives too fast through the alley, kicking up rocks and dust, scattering discarded lottery tickets and bottle caps like a dirty game of pool. There’s the faint and yet somehow sharp sound of a dog barking, muffled by the walls of the apartment complex I live in. I hear the bass notes of “Only In Dreams” – once again, I forgot to turn my laptop off before going to bed, and I laugh at how perfect it is that that song is playing at this moment. The rain, barely loud enough to be heard through glass and wood, is whipped violently against my window by a phantom gust of wind. There’s no sound I love more than the sound of rain tapping against my window softly in the middle of the night, a special little melody that soothes both the brain and bones alike. For fifteen minutes I laid there in my bed, eyes frozen on the ceiling, enveloped in the darkness of my room, and while I laid there I began to scan the grooves cut in to the plaster of my ceiling, an entire map above my bed now dim and white, mountains and valleys and harsh lines cutting and splintering every which way imaginable, and I marvel at how a mind so active and volatile a few moments before can suddenly become so still. It was then that I realized why my sleep was so troubled:

I am lost.

One of my favorite pictures. This is a picture taken of Earth by the Voyager 1 spacecraft in 1990, snapped when the Voyager had reached the edge of our Solar System, all of the way out past Pluto. Trippy, no?

One of my favorite pictures. This is a picture taken of Earth by the Voyager 1 spacecraft in 1990, snapped when the Voyager had reached the edge of our Solar System, all of the way out past Pluto. Trippy, no?

When I am lost and feeling lonely I need fresh air, and quickly throwing on some clothes I walked out of my apartment, got in my car, and drove across town to a park I loved going to back in the early days of college, back when life was simpler than it is now (maybe it wasn’t simple back then,  but it sure feels that way lately). I walked to the center of the park and proceeded to just lay down on my back, staring up at the stars just like I was doing with the plaster of my ceiling. The rain had stopped and I had no problem getting wet anyways. We as a species have invented dryers, so I was sure I would get over it. In the heavens the lights were blinking and twinkling as they always were, stars that might as well be brothers to our own Sun, casting their glow for all known observers in the Universe, the light from those stars speeding towards me at 186,000 miles per second (that would be the speed of light for those following along at home). I imagined that somewhere out there in those little pools of light and ink-black darkness was another planet, one just like our very own but billions upon billions of miles away, a planet that we will never see or reach. On that planet was a kid who looked just like me — same dorky glasses, same worn-out pair of shoes that, at least on this planet, are referred to as “Chucks” — and just like me he was staring off in to stars above and imagining the very same thing: that there is life out there, that some other pair of eyes must be staring right back across the farthest reaches of the universe, and having this thought can not help but make you feel like one grain of sand in the middle of the Sahara Desert.

I look at one of those lights, practically fixating on it, and I try to visualize my place on the Earth, how insignificant me and my problems, not to mention my assorted, quirky bullshit, truly are; to the observer that I was imagining, all they would know of me and my existence was a tiny blue light in their night-sky, and they would be wondering what life was like – if there was any life at all – for the people on that tiny blue light, that faint little glimmer that they can barely see with the naked eye. Would they understand me, a lost soul lost in the city? Looking up at that sky I know I’m small. Would they understand all the joy, the love, the misery of the average life on planet Earth, or could they really, truly ever understand it at all? Just knowing that I am merely a human being on one planet floating around a star in a galaxy composed of billions of stars, and that galaxy – The Milky Way – is just one of billions (and billions upon billions, possibly trillions) of galaxies itself, well, it sort of steals the breath out of your lungs. You mean very little and yet so very, very much. Up until last year I felt like I was living in a constant state of depression, and it was through realizing how little I mean that I understood how important I truly was – the universe may be big and cold-feeling, but that doesn’t mean I can’t help or change the world. When you see how small you are, you begin to lose your ego, your anger, and all the selfish little feelings that everyone has, and the reason for this is that when you see yourself on a grand, cosmic level, you understand just how little everything matters. You are free to have fun, and to love, and to forget all the problems that today seem big but can become relatively small when viewed through a prism like this. Forget all your damn problems and take joy in just how little you mean when compared to a march of history that stretches billions of years. It is through this realization that I know how short my life is, and this drives me to do whatever the hell I want, whether it’s staying out until dawn or calling an ex-girlfriend when I know damn well that I shouldn’t. I know I will fail when I call her, but I will always try. It is the driving force behind everything from my desire to write “The Great American Novel” (many have tried, a few have succeeded) and experience sweet, glorious literary fame to my desire to find myself sick on my floor, face stained by ice cream and not giving a fuck about it. Behind every new love and every new job is this cosmic drumbeat, telling me that I have very little time left. It is what drives me to live, it is what fuels my passions — knowing that I am going to die one day, sooner than I probably know, and with my short time on this Earth I want to accomplish quite a bit. It is through this realization that you can find your way home again after finding yourself suddenly lost. I am lost now, but tomorrow may mean a new girlfriend, a new job, a novel being written, reconnecting with friends that disappeared out of my life awhile ago, etc. etc. On this little blue dot of mine, what else matters besides tomorrow?

And yes, I did indeed get up off of the grass and went home. I slept like a baby that night.

On that note and in a desire to bring this free-form musing to a close, I offer you the immortal words of Mr. Carl Sagan, one of my heroes. This quote is his reaction to that “blue dot” picture that you looked at earlier in this post:

Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and in triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of the dot on scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner of the dot. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity – in all this vastness – there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. It is up to us. It’s been said that astronomy is a humbling, and I might add, a character-building experience. To my mind, there is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.

reposted from an old blog of mine, and I still find it fitting…

Jackson Williams.


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